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Why Older and Younger Adults Make Decisions Differently

old man and young child playing chess
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Do you ever wonder why your parent seems to make decisions that seem utterly strange to you? You’re not alone. Most of us have felt this, and there may be a good reason for it. Does aging affect decision-making?

Are young people more impulsive? 

Many factors affect decision-making: For example, how soon will I get a reward? A 2012 study investigated if immediate or delayed rewards differently impact older and younger adults. They looked at the brain and found biological differences:  The ventral striatum—the part of the brain most associated with rewards—is less sensitive to immediate rewards in older adults than younger adults. So, older adults are less likely to make impulsive decisions due to their changing brain sensitivity.

Do young people take more risks?

People say teens are natural risk-takers. Is it true? In a 2015 study, researchers found as adults get older, they experience subtle changes in cognition, including higher risk aversion and temporal discounting. Translation? Basically, they don’t want to take any huge risks but may not value future rewards as much as immediate ones. Most older adults want the safe option but also the immediate option.

I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t the last study say older adults were less impulsive? Like with most studies, more decision-making research needs to be done. But while they reached opposing conclusions, there is probably some truth to both.  

Would the two age groups gamble differently?

Let’s raise the stakes. In a 2011 study, researchers used two gambling tasks to further investigate. In the dependent task, you had to figure out how your choices would affect future rewards. But in the independent task, you only looked at the current reward. The researchers found that young adults did better in the independent task while their seniors succeeded in the dependent task. Ultimately, the experiment showed that older adults better evaluate future rewards in their decision-making.

So, it’s unclear if older adults are more impulsive or not, but these results suggest an interesting idea. Even though older adults may be dealing with age-related cognitive declines, their experiences prepare them to determine which choices were the best for the future. On the other hand, younger adults can make evaluations more quickly. Of course, both have pros and cons. But is one better than the other? Let us know your personal experience in the comments.

If you need help preventing yourself from your impulse buys, check out some tips here!

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